In the summer of 1996 I was busy writing a book that argued America’s main cultural divide is one of class rather than race. I had received a hefty advance to write it, part of which I gave to a scruffy little meth-head—imagine baseball pitcher Randy Johnson, only three feet shorter—to rebuild the engine in my tiny rusty Toyota. He promised me he’d have the job done in a week.
Three months later, he still wasn’t done. I had no transportation the whole time, so I began to feel antsy. One night I rented a car to cruise Portland bars for women. After a long, fruitless search, I wound up at a bar only a block from where I lived.
In 1992, Portland had been home to one of the most elaborate hate-crime hoaxes ever. It involved a black, wheelchair-bound lesbian with the eternally fantastic name of Azalea Cooley. Not only did she fake having cancer, she faked multiple hate crimes against herself until cops got suspicious and set up surveillance cameras that revealed she, not the Klan, was responsible for burning a cross on her back porch.
The neighborhood I lived in was called St. Johns, located on Portland’s far northern tip. I had been able to buy a two-bedroom house there for only $65,000. Despite what college sociology professors might lead you to believe, many borderline-poor and working-class neighborhoods are far more racially mixed than are many college sociology classes.
This bar was no exception. Although only about a block away from the clubhouse for all-white biker gang the Gypsy Jokers, it hosted whites, blacks, Mexicans, and even a few of North Portland’s more infamous Native American clans.
About fifteen minutes before closing time, two dudes sauntered into the bar, and I immediately got the gut feeling that they were looking for trouble. One was black, the other Mexican. This had zero to do with why I sensed they were looking for trouble; it was the malevolence in their eyes. Some people just enter bars radiating menace. After getting a glimpse at them, I paid them no further mind.
When last call was over and the lights went up and the bartender shouted at us all to skedaddle, I walked into the parking lot behind the bar, only to notice that the menacing-looking black dude was sitting up against my rent-a-car talking to a girl. She saw that I wanted to leave and told him to get up off the car.
He walked straight up to me. “Give me a ride home,” he commanded.
“No,” I said sharply. “I don’t know you.” If he’d have asked nicely, maybe I would have considered it, but it goes against my grain to take orders like that.
Moments later, a wrinkly old Willie Nelson-looking white guy, shitfaced drunk, walked up to me and said something like, “You’re older than me.”
I sort of nodded and realized the situation was rapidly getting weird.
I got in the car, started it up, looked in the rearview mirror, and noticed that the black dude’s Mexican friend was standing about a foot behind my car, talking to someone and blocking my exit.
I opened my car door, looked back, and said impatiently, “Can you please move?”
He moved, but only to walk up to me as I sat in the driver’s seat, clenching his fist and asking why I was disrespecting him.
He didn’t have time to punch me, because his black friend tried crawling between me and the steering wheel into the car.
FUCK this. I elbowed him out of the car, jammed it into reverse, and peeled the fuck out of that parking lot.
At 2:30 in the morning in St. Johns, cops are apparently waiting on every corner to bust people. As I was speeding, I was stopped only five blocks away by a police cruiser. They phoned in my license plate. Apparently the incident in the bar’s parking lot had already been reported. They handcuffed me, threw me in the back of the squad car, and drove me back to the bar’s parking lot.
I hadn’t even realized that in my haste to get the fuck away from that parking lot, I’d knocked over both Willie Nelson and the Mexican when I’d pushed the car into reverse.
After getting their stories, a cop leaned in to look at me in the back seat and said, “Mr. Goad, they say you were hurling racial epithets at them.”
I was floored. Here I was, spending all summer writing an antigovernment book that passionately claimed race wasn’t important and that class was, yet here was a government official saying I’d run over some people after calling them racist names. For a moment I honestly wondered whether it was some elaborate government setup. After all, in the book I had noted that MLK and Malcolm X were both gunned down not when they were making it racial, but after they’d started talking about all poor people regardless of color. Martin Luther King had started his Poor People’s Campaign the same year he got shot. And Black Muslims murdered Malcolm X after he’d made a trip to Mecca and noticed he was praying alongside people of all colors. Not that anyone had even seen my book yet—but when you’re sitting in the back of a cop car being falsely accused, you may be forgiven for getting a trifle paranoid.
For fuck’s sake, I had elbowed a black dude and knocked over a Mexican and a white guy. It was a Rainbow Coalition of victims—nothing racial about it—whom I would have left alone if they hadn’t been fucking with me so hard.
About five minutes later, the cop came back and said every independent witness to the scene said my accusers were lying. They all independently confirmed my side of the story. Thank FUCK there were witnesses. The cop uncuffed me and sent me on my way.
My trio of victims later tried unsuccessfully to sue me. I was told that one of them—I’m guessing Ol’ Willie, because he seemed the drunkest—was so hammered that night, he had walked out of the emergency room before being treated.
But the experience left a bitter taste in my mouth and made me feel naïve for thinking that race wasn’t important. It was obviously important to those who seemed to feel they could claim automatic victim status because of it. When you start with a blanket assumption that any group is operating from powerlessness and innocence, you invite a handful of manipulative psychopaths to take advantage of that presumption.
Thus, we live in a world that still largely denies that there are false accusations of rape, false accusations of gay-bashing, and false accusations of racist hatred (again and again and again). And it’s this stupidly childish and ultimately patronizing presumption that members of historically oppressed groups could never be malicious themselves—in other words, that they are not truly human and capable of fucked-up behavior like anyone else is—that continues to impede what I’d like to define as true progress.